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In Wake Of Blown Coup, Turkey Takes Global Aim At Gulen Movement

  • Charles Recknagel

With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) blaming Islamic education campaigner Fethullah Gulen (right) for a failed coup this month, many believe it may be a matter of time before he begins putting pressure on the exiled preacher's teaching network in countries besides Turkey.

With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) blaming Islamic education campaigner Fethullah Gulen (right) for a failed coup this month, many believe it may be a matter of time before he begins putting pressure on the exiled preacher's teaching network in countries besides Turkey.

In the wake of last week's failed Turkish coup, a battle over the Gulen movement is shaping up in Kyrgyzstan that may soon be played out in many more countries.

The contest pits two universities sharply against each other in the rugged Central Asian nation's capital, Bishkek, where both are ranked among the country's best institutions of higher learning and are located just a few kilometers apart.

One, Manas University, is funded by the Turkish government. The other, Ataturk-Alatoo University, is funded by the global Islamic education network of Fethullah Gulen, the man Ankara blames for the July 15 coup attempt that killed hundreds.

Gulen, who has lived in exile in the United States since 1999, denies any involvement.

Immediately after the coup was crushed, the Kyrgyz rector of the Ankara-funded Manas University organized a forum to denounce the attempted putsch. Sebahattin Balf also used the forum on July 18 to publicly warn his fellow citizens that the Gulen group could equally make "people in Kyrgyzstan do terrible things in their own country."

The rector's warning did not fall on deaf ears. It resonated with students at his institution, where some feel the Gulen network is an opaque organization whose aims may go far beyond the group's stated goals of promoting education, public service, and conservative Islamic values.

"Many people are saying they could attempt to seize the power," Aigul, who studies at Manas, says of the Gulen crowd. "It's hard to say who is right and who is wrong. I have seen how those [Gulen] students keep together, they help each other, though I personally see no danger or threat coming from them."

Such views are challenged by the professors and students at Ataturk-Alatoo, the Gulen-funded university.

"What ideas or principles [does Gulen] promote?" asks Nurdin Kaparov, a teacher at Ataturk-Alatoo. "Spreading education, unity, stressing the importance of math, biology, chemistry, and other sciences, how can such ideas look suspicious?"

Teacher Nurdin Kaparov (left) with a couple of his students at the Gulen-funded Ataturk Alatoo University in Bishkek

Teacher Nurdin Kaparov (left) with a couple of his students at the Gulen-funded Ataturk Alatoo University in Bishkek

It is a debate likely to be heard increasingly in many countries as Ankara cracks down hard on the Gulen movement at home in Turkey and now looks set to ask other states to do the same. The goal is to undercut the global network's source of funding, much of which comes from the institutions the Gulen network is best known -- and often praised for -- the private schools it operates in some 150 countries around the world.

"There is an all-out war on Gulen [by Ankara], obviously heavily focused right now on the domestic situation in Turkey and heavily focused on the United States because of Gulen's residency there," says Wolfango Piccoli, an expert on Turkey at Teneo Intelligence, a U.S.-based political-risk-advisory service. "But certainly the next wave will be focused on wherever Gulen or associates of Gulen are operating, and I would expect Ankara to put pressure on those countries, asking them to stop these entities from operating."

Early Indications

Already there are early signs Ankara is gearing up for a push by the Turkish government, its embassies, and its government-linked organizations to roll back the Gulen movement.

Erdogan has urged the United States to extradite Gulen over his alleged involvement in the failed coup, calling him a "terrorist," although no formal request was initially filed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that Washington might consider extradition, but would require not "allegations" but "evidence" that could prove the cleric's wrongdoing in a U.S. court of law.

The Gulen movement is widely seen as being opaque in its operations, fueling speculation over whether it has hidden goals.

On July 20, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly asked visiting Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili to closely watch the activities of Gulen schools in Georgia. Two days earlier, Turkey's consul in Georgia's port of Batumi urged parents there not to send their children to its Gulen-affiliated school, claiming it teaches in "accordance with a terrorist ideology."

Similarly, Erdogan has reportedly pressed Azerbaijan to rein in Gulen-linked facilities. The day after a July 17 phone call between Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Baku ordered the temporary closure of a private television station that had announced it planned to broadcast an interview with Gulen.

On July 20, Baku closed the Gulen-linked Qafqaz University (Caucasus University), widely considered one of the best institutes for higher learning in the country, along with at least one newspaper. Many other Gulen schools have already been closed in Azerbaijan in previous years based on requests from Turkey -- one of Azerbaijan's closest allies.

WATCH: Azerbaijan Takes Over University Linked To Gulen

Any Turkish effort now to globally roll back the Gulen movement is ambitious because it tackles one of the Muslim world's largest social networks, with schools, think tanks, and media outlets from Kenya to Kazakhstan. Gulen's Hizmet (Service) movement is said to have millions of members who follow the Turkish-born theologian's teachings that a Muslim's duty is to fund educational institutions, observe conservative Islamic values, and engage in community service.

Public Ambivalence

But Erdogan appears to be counting not just on Turkey's weight as an important financial partner for many of the states where Gulen operates. He also may hope to tap into existing public ambivalence in many countries regarding the Gulen organization. While many people welcome the schools as an addition to their country's educational systems, the Gulen movement is also widely seen as being opaque in its operations, fueling speculation over whether it has hidden goals.

"Two problems with the Gulen movement that make them quite unique are the sheer scale of their resources, the network in Turkey extends into business and charities, but also what seems to be the political nature of the network's activities [in Turkey]," says William Park, an expert on Turkey at King's College in London. "So their tendency to rely on their own internal network can easily be made to look threatening, political, and driven."

Like many networks, the Gulen organization encourages its members to rely upon each other, do business with each other, and contribute part of their income to the organization. Businessmen in particular are encouraged to set up local groups to fund schools and provide scholarships for poorer students who cannot afford the tuition. The schools teach a Western curriculum that includes English and Turkish and professors living in dormitories with students, where Gulen's writings on religion are studied after school hours and close links are formed that often continue into professional life.

Eventful History

The Gulen movement already has had an eventful history in Central Asia, one of the first regions where the movement set up schools in the 1990s as part of a then Turkish-government supported push to spread Turkish culture and influence abroad. The drive, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, saw schools established in all the newly independent Central Asian states with the support of local governments.

However, several of the region's authoritarian leaders later turned against the schools. Uzbekistan closed the schools in the early 2000s, Turkmenistan in the early 2010s, and Tajikistan last year. Russia, which originally welcomed the schools in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, annexed the schools in the early 2000s by putting them directly under the state educational system.

None of these countries provided a reason for shutting the Gulen schools. But some observers say that authoritarian governments are usually the first to feel threatened by the existence of any well-organized network in their countries that is not under their direct control.

"In any authoritarian government, there is always a tendency to centralize power over concerns about any outside force that could topple the government from within," says Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

In now seeking to weaken the Gulen movement globally, Erdogan may have to convince some countries that host Gulen schools that his own motives are more than those of a powerful leader seeking to eliminate an organization which, ironically, was once allied with him.

Erdogan and the Gulen network in Turkey cooperated in bringing Erdogan's religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002. However, they soon fell out, reportedly over power-sharing issues and over Erdogan's leadership style.

Since coming to power, Erdogan has accused the Gulen movement of being behind several attempts to tar his administration, notably during a police investigation of a 2013 corruption scandal that implicated some of the president's closest associates.

That scandal was followed by the government dismissing many prosecutors and top officials involved in the corruption investigation, with Erdogan telling the public the purge was necessary to protect Turkey from "dark forces" bent on destroying it.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Bakyt Asanov contributed to this story
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